Episode 27: LA84 Foundation Part II with Jason Morgan
This episode is part II of the LA84 Foundation and College Football Playoffs – Champions Educate Here. In part I, we interviewed Renata Simril at President and CEO of the LA84 Foundation, who spoke about the benefits of play and movement for our youth. Today, we welcome Jason Morgan, a recipient of the College Football Playoff Champion Educator Award, and his mentor, Catherine Borek.
A South Central, Los Angeles native, Christian, husband and father of three, Jason Lee Morgan was a bused kid and lived firsthand the inequities of our school system, having to travel an hour outside of his community on a bus, each day to receive a quality education. His unique experience with public schools and systemic injustice trauma growing up as a young Black male has empowered him to champion engaging, and equitable learning opportunities for all underrepresented families who stay in their local district; while also shining light on the unique stories and assets that exist in the culture and people of communities of color.
Upon graduation from Stanford University, Jason became a teacher in a community like his. He has served the great community of Compton Unified as a math and AVID teacher, curriculum designer, coordinator, and specialist for the past 17 years. Jason, a current in-classroom teacher specialist, brought the first data science course to Compton Unified in partnership with Stanford’s YouCubed nonprofit. He advocates within the broader educational landscape as a presenter and early career teacher mentor with Above and Beyond Teacher Leadership Academy and as a Teach Plus Education Policy Fellow, currently engaged in policy work in diversifying California’s teacher workforce, in partnership with Ed Trust West.
In 2023, Jason was honored as a College Football Playoff Legacy Champion Educator, where upon receiving the grant, founded the Student Empathy Network for Diversity (SEND) Student Fellowship that leverages the power of movement to build empathy between historically segregated student communities and promotes access to movement and play in non-athletic settings whilst informing education, policy reform with student voice.
He is currently proposing a Compton Math Equity project called the, I Too Am a Mathematician summer math experience as the founder and CEO of twiGs Creation, Inc., an educational services provider, and media entity that amplifies the dignity and potential of all humans for positive global stewardship.
Jason, and his mentor Catherine, with us today, share the passion that movement is an integral part of learning and that we must connect the mind and the body in order for the learning to stick. Welcome Jason and Catherine.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nati Rodriguez [03:45]
I’d like to start just with your recent award and recognition as a 2023 College Football Playoff Legacy recipient. Can you share about the Student Empathy Network for Diversity (SEND) Student Fellowship?
Jason Morgan [03:58]
Gladly. I thought for sure I was not going to receive the grant. The majority of the applicants are athletic directors, PE teachers, coaches, wellness counselors, and here I come, a math teacher, talking about using movement in his math class, who now wants to spread the community-building effect of movement through an initiative to bridge the empathy gap between segregated communities in Southern California.
I was getting lost trying to explain it all. So much so, that the LA84 Foundation had to jump on a call for me to clarify what I actually wanted to do. I was fumbling over my words, I told my wife after that call, I was like, “Babe, it’s over. I blew it. It’s a rap. Just go ahead and call it. I just confused them further, and it was done.” But obviously that wasn’t the case.
I’m super grateful to the LA Sports Entertainment Commission, LA84 Foundation, and the College Football Playoff Foundation for believing in me and taking a chance on that vision – it really speaks volumes I believe in their commitment to play equity, even in these nontraditional spaces. Our project is called the SEND Network – Student Ambassador Fellowship. What we do is leverage the power of movement to connect historically segregated communities, in order to cultivate empathy-driven impact in our local and global spaces. Our first SEND Fellows, who are actually my students, were introduced to movement-based pedagogy in my math class, and they joined me for the past four years for this cohort where I was piloting math reform in Compton. The students got to stay with me all four years. One of my Fellows, Miriam, has been taking me for five math courses since her freshman year, I’m the only math teacher she’s known – poor child.
Movement really helped us to deepen the understanding of the content. We also realized that it had this remarkable impact on the sense of belonging and community we had in the classroom. The question was then posed like, “Well, how might we, as ambassadors from Compton, utilize this discovery to build community between different student populations, especially in this age of polarization?”
The pioneers of this work are Compton educators like myself, Catherine, Billy Nay, and Alicia Elios – our community relations specialist, and my math students who got introduced to this crazy guy doing movement in their math class.
Nati Rodriguez [06:55]
Got it. There’s a couple of things I want to dive into. What is it that the students are doing as ambassadors of this program? I’m also just really curious about how the students were with you for five years – that sounds like an incredible opportunity for them to deepen their learning and trust and all the benefits of having the same teacher over time.
Jason Morgan [07:17]
Well, we have this threefold mission. We’re trying to build a cultural exchange and empathy between diverse communities. There’s a lot of segregation and disconnect within the Southern California and LA region, and we bring these groups together. We have students from Compton, we have students from North Hollywood, Burbank, and Silver Lake, and their families and parents get involved. These communities typically would not intersect; we create these movement-based experiences and domestic exchanges – that’s one aspect. We believe in the power of movement, so we get to impact our local communities through movement-based service projects.
One is part of the Compton Math Equity Project, where our Student Fellows from Compton were able to lead a math movement and mindfulness workshop at the local elementary school for second graders. Just having that impact, the SEND Fellows come in, they have their SEND shirts, and they come in as a team and interact, and give back to their community through movement.
The third aspect is allowing the students’ stories and their experiences with this program and this Fellowship to inform educational equity policy from the students’ perspective. They envision how movement plays a key role in improving equity for everybody.
Nati Rodriguez [08:40]
Can you tell us what are those five courses that you’ve taught?
Jason Morgan [08:44]
For this model – it was Integrated Math One, Two, Three and Data Science. Miriam is taking me for data science for a second year, and I’m very thankful for that. That’s opened up doors for other pathways for students who are interested in pursuing deeper mathematical subjects – that’s opened up the door for a current group of juniors who are trying to take AP Calculus or BC, which we don’t technically offer. This cohort we are being more creative about giving students access to upper-level mathematics.
Nati Rodriguez [09:22]
The data science course, I don’t know if that’s typical as a math offering in high school. Can you speak about how that came about at your school site and district?
Jason Morgan [09:34]
In working through different approaches for math reform, I came across Stanford’s YouCubed nonprofit. I’ve been using their resources within the classroom, feeling that it was very important for our students in Compton to have access to open, creative math tasks that had low floors, high ceilings, where everybody can participate and enter, and can take their math levels to these very high, low floor, high ceiling. Stanford was piloting a new data science course, instead of waiting for it to come down ten years down the line to Compton Unified, I said, “No, this needs to be here now.”
I got in touch with some of the folks at YouCubed and they said, “We’re doing the pilot. Do you want to be a part of it?” I said, “Yes, sign me up.”
They had already done a lot of work for the A-G eligibility and getting it approved by the UCs and Cal States so that it was legit. You still had to write the course description for the district, which was a beast, and it took a lot, but it’sthat important. You just go through that long arduous template and put it together, and it was approved to be a math course and even given an honors weight.
Nati Rodriguez [10:52]
That’s great. This now a widespread offering in the district?
Jason Morgan [10:57]
No, we’re working on it. This is the second year of it being offered within the district, I’m still the only data science teacher. I do believe that our Compton Early College is also adopting data science, and I know that LAUSD, they have a data science course through UCLA. We knew these things were being offered to communities like ours. But it takes extra effort to make sure that it gets into the hands of the people, and we need people to champion it.
Even now, as a curriculum specialist, I am not supposed to be teaching. I said, “One, the data science course needs to continue, and I believe it’s important as a curriculum specialist to stay connected to the classroom and to students.” Like I said, I’ve been very privileged because I’m not supposed to have my giant classroom, I’m not supposed to be able to teach a class. Compton Unified has given me a lot of flexibility to make this impact, and I’m very grateful.
Catherine Borek [12:05]
And, Morgan, you’ve earned that because you’re good at what you do and you have a lot of ideas, and they want to watch you and follow those ideas out.
Nati Rodriguez [12:14]
That’s fantastic. It’s great to hear when teachers are surrounded by supportive leadership and are really allowed to grow in their practice and develop these new initiatives that will have a significant impact for students.
Nati Rodriguez [13:11]
Just taking it back to the movement that you integrated in your math classroom. When we think about teaching and learning math, we don’t usually think about play or movement, sometimes not even joy, unfortunately. How did you get to this point in your teaching career where movement became part of your teaching? What was that journey like for you?
Jason Morgan [13:34]
I don’t know what you’re talking about, Nati. You never walked this space in your math class and broke a sweat? That wasn’t, like, the norm. Folks probably broke a sweat just from the pressure and math trauma that we all face. Like you said, there’s a lot of things that take away the joy of mathematics, especially by the time the students get to me, there’s a lot of unlearning that I have to do with the students and getting them to really develop a more positive and healthy relationship with mathematics.
When I became a teacher, like I said, the first years I had no clue what I was doing, and it just looked like my own experience growing up. Eventually I started incorporating more tactile manipulatives especially for my math intervention students. We use station rotations, and one of the stations always had something physical. I called it Algebra Trash Kit Ball, and we would do these ball and Barbie and rubber band experiments, and the students enjoyed that, especially some of my boys, who typically don’t enjoy anything.
We began including some of these playful activities, just getting the students more access to STEM within their math classes. So, when personnel or district leaders would come visit and observe our classroom, one of the biggest notes that they made was, the students are having fun in a math classroom. For some reason, that was so shocking that they were having fun and engaged in math. Why is that not the expectation already? I wanted to do more than what I grew up, my experience was like, but my journey to this deep love affair with movement.
But it came – I was awarded this honor called the Outstanding Teacher of America Award in 2017 by the Carlson Family Foundation, it’s now called the Above and Beyond – it’s a public charity, and we focus on equitable educational opportunities for every student and celebrate and support outstanding and inspirational California public high school teachers, especially those teachers working in underserved school communities. You can only be nominated by former students. They get to speak at the ceremony, and they give you the award, and you don’t know who it is, so it’s just very meaningful. So, I was thankful to get honored in that way.
During that award weekend, past honorees hosted an educator symposium. During that symposium, I was introduced to two amazing educators, Brian Katz, and then the amazing Nicole Robinson. She’s an award-winning dance instructor, and she is an advocate for dance education and movement. She also led one of our SEND workshops. They just had all of this rich professional knowledge. They just introduced me to these movement experiences and workshops at the symposium. It changed my life; I could never explain to anyone the power of movement. They were like, “What do you do? You just move and walk around all day?”
I was like, “Oh, no, you just have to be there and experience it.”
Those workshops just had a profound impact. It even made the other presenters more playful in how they presented their strategies. I was just hooked, and I was like, “I got to bring this back to my students in Compton. I got to bring it back to my colleagues.” And so, I use it wherever I go.
My math classrooms are not known for these hubs of belonging and community, but movement can really build that sense of community and support. I believe it is very essential for students being able to thrive in a mathematics classroom, especially for students of color and communities like Compton. If you foster that sense of belonging, and community in math spaces, that increases their access to math achievement, STEM related fields, because they see themselves, and movement can really create that kind of atmosphere and once you have that, the sky is the limit, even in a math classroom.
Nati Rodriguez [17:53]
Can you describe to us what a class might look like where there is movement, and what is the experience like for your students?
Jason Morgan [18:01]
Well, when I first started off, I was crazy, those first students, because you come down from the mountaintop and you have the knowledge right, it’s glowing in your hands, and you just want to bring it back to the masses. Those students, for like, a week, they came into the classroom – this is a math class – and there are no desks and no chairs, and they don’t get to sit the whole entire period. They’re just connecting. They’re demonstrating prior knowledge through movement. They’re learning how to work together as a team. They’re building shapes and structures and being able to do translations with their body mirror reflections. There was lots of laughter, joy, connecting, and learning about one another, learning about their conceptual understanding of mathematics because they had to express it through their bodies. Since then, I’ve learned to calibrate.
We always start off with our physical warm-ups, and we start off with connection. Students, when they come in, we focus a lot on mingling. There’s going to be a prompt that lets them know what they need to talk about and mingle about. That’s really to continue to foster this strong sense of community in the math classroom so that they feel safe with one another in this authentic way. So, we start off with a circle. We stretch, we breathe, and we open up the bodies. We talk about transitioning from whatever happened last period or what happened in the car, on the car ride to school. We just transition our bodies physically. We’ll walk the space, and you have music in the background. They’ll be given different prompts.
One of my favorites was right before the pandemic, we did the zombie apocalypse. After the pandemic, my students were like, “Mr. Morgan, you’re a prophet. You knew it was coming.”
We would talk about the exponential growth of diseases. They would all stand as a class in this grid next to each other, and then they would tap themselves on the shoulder at the same rate, and they would all go down, and that was a linear rate. The next time, each person would tap two people at a time to show the exponential factor of, like okay, two folks are sick, and then four, and then eight, and then 16, and then 32, and then 64 and they just saw how quickly it spread throughout the class. We created this visual model to help deepen the understanding of the concepts.
It’s very helpful, especially for some of my newcomer students – students who are new to the country. We had one student this year, she had very limited English. She was able to really communicate with her peers through these movements and gestures to really help with memory retention. Often times, if we can’t communicate with each other by language, we often start resorting to movement with our bodies so just deepening her access to the material. I was just thankful for the opportunity to serve multilingual students and that we created a space where she could still feel like she could access challenging material, even though there was this language challenge.
Nati Rodriguez [21:55]
You’ve hinted at this, but what is your vision for math education?
Jason Morgan [22:01]
One of the benefits of the Champions Educate Here Legacy Program is that the LA Sports Entertainment Commission, they produced these videos of our work, and they interviewed our students, and so they told us to invite one student, and obviously I invited three. Some of the things that they said also tie into part of that vision of mathematics is, “how do students feel when they enter into the math space? “
One of our SEND Fellows and my math student, Michael said, “I love how movement gives me a sense of family among my classroom, and I only feel this in Mr. Morgan’s class.”
Nassir said, “Honestly, I feel more teachers should be teaching this because I feel there’s too much of the same, and this is completely different.”
I was just thankful to have fostered a space where students could learn math, but at the same time flourish as humans. Ultimately, I want that math classroom to be a place where students feel seen and heard. They’re given access to not only learn math facts, but to actually get their hands dirty with being actual mathematicians from a young age and exploring and solving problems in the world that interest them, where these mathematical tools and concepts are a source of empowerment for them to be good stewards of their communities and their passions.
My current focus right now is with the Compton Math Equity Project, and we’re trying to cultivate and sustain equitable math experiences for students of color through these, what we call deconstructing anti-racist math approaches, building strong mindful and culturally relevant math identities and communities, and just enhancing our students’ vibe with math, through movement and play based mathematics. The Play Equity Fund really allowed our SEND program to support this effort because we also ordered active math and STEM play equipment to utilize in our service projects with the elementary school students and include that in our summer math camp at the local elementary school here in Compton.
Nati Rodriguez [24:13]
That’s great. Would those be taught by some of the high school students?
Jason Morgan [24:17]
Yes, it’s a collaboration. The model I use for my company is homegrown talent – the community serving the community so contracting with teachers from the district and high school students and compensating them as interns. The SEND Fellows are great with the kids. If you’re going to do a workshop with kids, you need the high school students in there to give back to the community. They love it. The younger kids love it.
For example, we have second graders for this cohort, their current second grade teacher, and then allowing them to be cohorted with their upcoming third grade teacher and have those teachers be a part of the summer math camp. They’re already kind of building those relationships. The students are involved helping with Active Math Play. I have alumni also who get involved with the workshops.
It’s really about the community giving back to the community. I just think it’s very powerful to tap in the homegrown talent.
Nati Rodriguez [25:21]
Yes, a lot of what you’re describing, I think of it as bigger than math. There’s the family, the connectedness, the feeling safe, and belonging and empowerment, and discovering their passions. Jason, what was your own education experience like? How did you get to the point where you wanted to get uncomfortable to do what’s better for students?
Jason Morgan [25:48]
My education, man. You mentioned I was born in South Central Los Angeles. If you guys think of the movie “Boyz n the Hood” that was filmed in my neighborhood, those are what my homes looked like, that’s what I knew. My siblings and I attended our local elementary school. In the first grade, my teacher told my mom to bus me out.
In the 70’s and 80’s, if you’re an economically disadvantaged community, you would get bused to a wealthier, and often times a more white dominated area, to attend school and you could go back and forth as well. But during the 80’s it stopped being a lot of the forth, so I didn’t see a lot of students from the wealthier neighborhoods coming to my neighborhood. It became one-sided.
There was this idea that you had to get out in order to get a good education. I went an hour outside of South Central Los Angeles to Northridge, California, and it was true; I received a high-quality education. At the same time, I’m wrestling through all these stereotypes. I went from the highest performing student in my South Central school to the lowest performing student at my school in Northridge, California. It was predominantly white, Jewish, and Korean and guess what my worst subject was? Math.
So, I have all this math trauma – I’m wrestling with these stereotypes that Black men are ignorant and not as smart. Here I am like the lowest performing student. So, I had that going on. It was extreme racial and social economic culture shift. I’m in elementary school trying to make sense of it all, make sense of my own racial identity. Where do I fit? Why are these things different? Why did I have to leave my home to get this quality education? A lot of that fueled my own desire to make sure that we provide these premier and authentic educational experiences for the families who stay.
Even though I struggled I eventually did begin to excel in school. Wherever I went, I wanted to be the best. I eventually adapted by third grade, and I did well. I graduated valedictorian of my high school. I got a five on my AP calculus exam. Obviously, I got into Stanford University. So, I figured it out. Math became my favorite subject again until freshman year at Stanford. I realized that my procedural understanding of math and my five on the AP calculus meant nothing because Stanford professors wanted you to understand the concepts and you need to use mathematical creativity. I was like, “I don’t know how to do that.”
So, it was touch and go there. I also understand that I’m in the minority. Not everyone had that type of school experience and just doing the same thing that I experience is not going to hit all of the personality types; it’s not going to hit all cultures and backgrounds.
Catherine Borek [29:08]
Morgan, I think that brings us back to SEND too because that’s why I feel like you created SEND was so that our students, when they get to college for the first time, don’t feel like that outsider status. Would you agree with that?
Jason Morgan [29:25]
Yes, I would say definitely. That’s definitely one of the aspects where they can be able to interact with these different communities, but also to highlight just the beauty that’s within communities like Compton. Compton has a rich history – the people, the culture – when you come visit the families and having workshops held at Compton and people saying, this is my first time in Compton, and then just being able to see our campus and our students – it helps break down those stereotypes of what it means to be from communities like Compton.
Nati Rodriguez [29:59]
Thank you for sharing about your experience and your current school community. Something that I’m picking up is you have 17 plus years of experience, and it sounds like you’re continuously learning and connecting to these organizations that help you in your own development as a teacher, and you have this wonderful mentor. What advice would you give a new math teacher who’s starting off in their career to be able to really make it a long impactful career in working with kids?
Jason Morgan [30:32]
In education, I think there’s a lot of pressure to comply with what the system is asking of you. I serve as an early career teacher mentor, and a lot of our early career teachers’ really want to make an impact, just like I want to make an impact, but they also feel this pressure, “I got to get tenure. I can’t really push the envelope.”
At the same time, they’re suppressing their own spirit and their passion and their desire. One of my encouragements is just you need to be bold within education. You have to be bold for our kids and your own human spirit. It is unhealthy to continually violate one’s conscience for the sake of compliance.
We see the gaps and the holes and in our heart of hearts, we know we must do something radically different, but the fear of the unknown, the pressure, and this tattered, yet safe tether of the familiar just paralyzes us, and it keeps us swimming in these circles. To create the change that we need, we have to explore uncharted territory within education, and we need to make it a safe space for educators to do that. The system evolves slowly, so it will take the courage and creativity of day-to-day practitioners to forget those new pathways and push the boundaries, and as John Lewis said, get into a bit of good trouble. And I would say a good place to start, go ahead and get your students up and moving.
Nati Rodriguez [32:13]
I love it. I love it, being bold.
Nati Rodriguez [32:34]
Jason, Catherine, is there anything else that you would like to share with our Learner audience?
Catherine Borek [32:40]
I’m just thinking that sometimes curiosity is messy. It’s one of those messy things that we go through. We got to be messy. We got to be a little noisy. We got to be dangerous. Classrooms need to maybe be a little messy, a little noisy, a little dangerous through this movement so that we can give them an opportunity to actually discover stuff. If they’re just sitting down reading books, and I love books don’t get me wrong, but if we’re just filling them up with information, that information isn’t going to stick until it sits in with movement and you get that mind, body, soul connection. If we just make it all about the mind, we’re leaving a bunch of students out who need to make that connection to their body, too.
Jason Morgan [33:20]
There’s growing research on embodied cognition – the physical body and its benefits and connections to cognitive abilities. It used to be this fringe area of research, but now that we can do brain scans, we see the interconnectedness of the body’s interaction with the environment and how it impacts the body, and wellness, and your mind, and even your ability to learn. Just get out there and be creative and how you can incorporate movement into what you do in all aspects of your life, not even just in the classroom, but just in your own personal lives as well, in the workplace, because doing so is not a disservice. Because the more we have folks incorporating movement into their life and their students’ lives, we learn more, and we can get better at it, and we can take advantage of a resource that we might be underutilizing.
Nati Rodriguez [34:18]
Thank you so much for your time today and for sharing all of these wonderful insights. I know our Learner audience will really appreciate this and hopefully spur some curiosity and interest in integrating movement in their own classrooms.